Political decisions don't have to involve wars to affect public health. Seven people died in Walkerton in 2000, and 2,500 fell ill, because Ontario's Harris government didn't want to spend money on maintaining water-quality standards.
Or consider the public health impact when a municipality approves a new suburban development. The residents who commute to work will burn more gasoline than they would if they lived in the city. The resulting air pollution will have a harmful effect on both those residents and those living near their routes -- especially those who are already in poor health or with chronic conditions.
For example, in 2004 Toronto Public Health estimated that air pollution causes 1,700 premature deaths and 3,000 to 6,000 hospitalizations a year in the Toronto area.
Our own B.C. Ministry of the Environment cites a 2008 Canadian Medical Association study finding that in that year alone, air pollution would have cost B.C. 306 acute premature deaths, 1,158 hospital admissions, 8,763 emergency department visits, 2.5 million minor illnesses and 62,112 doctor's office visits.
We already use politics to deal with public-health issues like clean water, sanitation, and vaccination. They may stir loud debates -- think about the recent uproar in Victoria over sewage treatment, or the B.C. Nurses' Union resisting mandated vaccination. But they are simply obvious examples of politics as medicine on a large scale.
The less obvious examples are what we now need to consider. Not that long ago, no one thought twice about the environmental impact of a pipeline or highway or coal mine or sewage outfall. Now we get angry if environmental impact studies are rushed through.
While we now show commendable concern for Kermode bears and salmon, we need to start thinking about number one: ourselves.
Vote to get sick?
Our governments constantly make decisions and spend money (or cut back on spending), all supposedly for the public good. Yet they always present their arguments in terms of an abstract bottom line: higher incomes, lower taxes, reduced deficits. How keen would you be to reduce your neighbours' taxes, or increase their incomes, if you knew it would make you sick, or even kill you?